In many cultures and religions, time is linear, steadily progressing. Memorials commemorate past events. Rehearsals prepare us for events that are to come. But the exact date or time of a memorial or a rehearsal doesn’t matter much, because its sole purpose is to refresh a faded memory.
In Judaism, time flows like a rolling wave that loops back on itself even as it pushes forward. Instead of merely commemorating a past event, we have a brief opportunity to re-live it. Instead of rehearsing a future event, we experience a foretaste of it.
The Passover Seder is one aspect of traditional Judaism that Christians love. Christians are enthralled by the beautiful symbolism of redemption, which reflects not only the historical exodus from Egypt, but the Messianic redemption as well.
And yet, Christians have a tendency to apply a Western, linear-time approach to Passover in which the tangible symbols have significance, but the timing doesn’t matter.
Churches commonly conduct seder demonstrations in the spring, but they can occur throughout the year, at any time of day. That’s because rather than an actual seder, these presentations are better understood as lectures about the Passover meal. Unlike a typical seder, in which family and friends gather around a dining room table, these events often take place in a large hall complete with a PA system and catered meals. First Fruits of Zion's new Haggadah, The Master's Table, provides an excellent handbook for a shortened version of the seder for events such as these.
These seder presentations are often inspiring and educational. Many people have become interested in Messianic Judaism because of their experiences at demonstrations like this. However, it is easy to confuse a seder demonstration with a seder itself. One of the most critical differences is the timing.
On That Day
The word seder denotes the significance of time. Seder is the Hebrew word for “order” or “sequence,” as it is a list of steps that participants carry out throughout the night. Such a list is necessary because numerous time-sensitive biblical commandments converge on that night; the seder provides a systematic way to fulfill all those requirements.
Many of these commandments are expressed in Exodus 13. This chapter goes to great lengths to emphasize the importance of the timing:
Remember this day in which you came out from Egypt… Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. And when the LORD brings you into the land…you shall keep this service in this month… You shall tell your son on that day, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt” … You shall therefore keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year. (Exodus 13:3-10)
Passover is called a mo’ed, a “meeting.” It’s a meeting with God. When you attend a meeting, the right time matters!
Why at Night?
The seder is not well attuned to the lifestyle of North American suburbanites. Just like the original exodus from Egypt, it is a bit of an interruption.
The primary purpose of the seder is to “tell your son on that day,” which means that children are our most important guests. And yet a seder begins at night, right about the time people typically send their kids to bed!
The Haggadah actually provides its own justification for this. Here is a summary of the logic:
- The words “on that day” indicate that the “telling” must happen on the exact day of the mo’ed marking the exodus: the fifteenth day of Nisan (Abib). Biblically, days begin in the evening.
- The biblical text implies that the lamb, bitter herbs, and matzah are to serve as visual aids in telling the story.
- The lamb sacrifice was to be slaughtered and cooked on the prior afternoon, Nisan 14.
- It was eaten that night, Nisan 15, on the first night of Chag HaMatzot (the Festival of Unleavened Bread). None of it was to remain until morning.
- Thus, the seder, which includes eating the ceremonial foods and telling the story of redemption, must occur in the evening of Nisan 15.
Because the text is so insistent that the event must occur on the proper day, in Jewish practice we wait to start the event until the previous day is clearly over—when the light of the sun is gone from the sky.
How is this supposed to work with young children?
First of all, the interruption of their schedule is intentional. Staying up late is one of the most exciting and memorable aspects of the seder. It gives the night significance and mystery and makes this night different from all other nights.
Make time for your kids to be well rested beforehand. If they can’t actually nap, at least make sure they got enough sleep the previous night and have some quiet, restful time during the day.
And yet, it’s OK if your children need to sleep before the seder is over. Make sure there is a place available for children to fall asleep, even if it’s just a comfy chair or a blanket on the floor. If you are bringing your children to someone else’s home for the seder, seriously consider letting it be a sleepover for your kids.
In the meantime, make your seder interesting. Create an atmosphere of wonder and anticipation. Use words they understand. Vary the inflection in your voice. Bribe them with treats and prizes. Sing crazy songs. Use props. Interact with them and include them in the conversation. Surprise them occasionally. Your job is to burn a positive memory into their brains that will last a lifetime.
A Window of Opportunity
At the seder, we are not merely looking back on a redemption that once occurred. Nor are we simply looking forward to a redemption that is yet to take place. At that exact moment, as time warps over itself like a rolling wave, we have the profound opportunity to experience redemption for ourselves. To be redeemed. To break out of Egypt. To have Yeshua the Messiah break our yokes.